WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Tuesday it has confirmed the country’s fourth case of mad cow disease, marking the first bovine spongiform encephalopathy infection since 2006, in a development that could affect Japan’s decision on whether to ease its import restrictions on U.S. beef.
The USDA stressed human health was not at risk, as the infected animal, a dairy cow from Central California, was never intended to be slaughtered for human consumption.
“The carcass of the animal is being held under state authority at a rendering facility in California and will be destroyed,” the department said in a statement, adding the infected cow “at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health.”
“This detection should not affect U.S. trade,” the statement said.
The announcement comes at a time when Japan is considering easing its restrictions that currently only allow imports of beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger from the United States to the meat of cattle aged 30 months or younger.
John Clifford, chief veterinary officer at the USDA, said the dairy cow confirmed with BSE is old and thus not within the scope of the eased import restrictions planned by Japan.
Tokyo will also be required to make a tough decision, as access to the nation’s beef market is one of the hot topics in the ongoing preliminary consultations between the two countries prior to Japan’s formal entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks.
Japan banned imports of U.S. and Canadian beef in 2003 following confirmation of the brain-wasting disease. While it lifted the blanket ban in December 2005, it has imposed conditions that included the 20-month-or-younger age limit.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement, “The beef and dairy in the American food supply is safe and USDA remains confident in the health of U.S. cattle.”
The U.S. safeguard system “worked as planned to identify this case quickly,” Vilsack said.
The United States has had “long-standing interlocking safeguards to protect human and animal health against BSE,” the department said.
“This detection in no way affects the United States’ BSE status” as determined by the World Organization for Animal Health, the department said in the statement, adding Washington is taking every step to ensure the safety of human consumption, such as removal of specified risk materials and vigorous surveillance.
According to the department, test results showed the dairy cow tested positive for “atypical BSE,” a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed.
The United States has urged Japan to lift its import restrictions on American beef products, saying it should make a decision based on scientific evidence.
The first BSE case was confirmed in 2003 in a dairy cow imported from Canada that had been raised in the state of Washington. The second case was confirmed in Texas in 2005, followed by a third in Alabama in 2006.
S. Korea firms halt sales
Two major South Korean retailers suspended sales of U.S. beef following the discovery of mad cow disease in a U.S. dairy cow.
Home Plus and Lotte Mart, the country’s No. 2 and No. 3 supermarket chains, said they have “temporarily” halted sales of U.S. beef to calm worries.
“We stopped sales from today,” said a Lotte Mart spokesman said Wednesday. “Not that there were any quality issues in the meat but because consumers are worried.”